ProgressNow Colorado is raising money on the idea that it might buy the internet browsing history of Sen. Cory Gardner and three of Colorado’s U.S. representatives.
It’s part of a national backlash against a recent vote that restores internet providers’ right to profit from your personal data. Nationally, a similar campaign has raised $190,000 toward similar goals.
“They want to sell off our right to privacy? That means theirs is up for grabs, too,” wrote Ian Silverii, ProgressNow Colorado’s executive director in a fundraiser message.
“Chip in right now to help us buy the browsing history of the officeholders who took away your right to privacy.”
The group has raised thousands of dollars on that message, Silverii said. There’s good reason to expect it won’t be so easy to buy the data — but the idea gets at some serious questions about consumer privacy.
What the bill does:
In short, the Republican bill eliminates an Obama rule from 2016 that would have required ISPs to get customers’ permission before selling or sharing data generated while they use the internet. The Obama rule hadn’t yet taken effect. Ars Technica has a detailed explanation.
How they voted in Colorado:
In Colorado, Sen. Cory Gardner and representatives Ken Buck, Doug Lamborn and Scott Tipton, all Republicans, voted for the privacy rollback. Rep. Mike Coffman was the only Republican from the state to vote against the change.
Can you really buy Cory Gardner’s data?
At least as things stand now, it’s nearly impossible to order up any one person’s browsing data.
The best explanation I’ve seen comes from Mike Masnick, founder of TechDirt, and it has to do with the way that ad-targeting actually works. “Advertisers aren’t buying your browsing data, and ISPs and other internet companies aren’t selling your data in a neat little package,” he writes.
Instead, they keep that data internally and use it to “sell targeting.” So, Comcast might know that I’m interested in Denver and skiing and politics, and probably that I’m (almost) 30 and male.
Comcast puts that anonymized information out on a marketplace — like, “Hey, got a nerd over here, who wants him?” Advertisers are then able to bid to place ads in front of that nerd — say, for skis.
“At no point does the ad exchange or any of the advertisers know that this is ‘Louis Gohmert, Congressional Rep,'” Masnick writes.
“Nor do they get any other info. They just know that if they are willing to spend the required amount to get the ad shown via the marketplace bidding mechanism, it will show up in front of someone who is somewhat more likely to be interested in the content.”
As Timothy Lee put it for Vox: “It’s a funny gimmick, but no ISP is currently selling this kind of raw data on individual subscribers. And it’s unlikely they ever will.”
Russell Brandom also argues for The Verge that the sale of “individually identifiable” data is illegal under The Telecommunications Act. However, it remains unclear exactly how that law would be applied to internet providers, as Ars Technica explains.
Both Comcast and Verizon have denied that they sell personal web browsing data, but there are enough factors at play that we simply don’t know how privacy regulations will play out over the next couple years.
Silverii said that the ability to complete the project will depend on how the situation shapes up.
If the purchase isn’t possible, he said, “(w)e’ll probably make sure that we’re using all of those funds that we’re collecting to continue to fight for privacy.”
People are donating not just for the specific proposal but because they understand that “their civil liberties are at stake,” he said. ” … People are very, very concerned about their privacy.”
OK, but should I be worried about privacy?
This latest Congressional action rolls back rules for ISPs set by the Federal Communications Commission in October 2016 — so, this essentially returns us to the status quo.
And, while your browsing data may be “aggregated,” the increasing use of it may lead to more personalized ads and a whole new world of privacy concerns.
In theory, even aggregated data might be reverse-engineered to disclose individual identities. (Although I have a feeling that the current round of fundraisers won’t accomplish that.)
“For the foreseeable future, we’re going to be living in a commercial surveillance state, ” as Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy, told The Verge.